2017 in retrospect: the best albums (non-k-pop)

I listened to plenty of non-K-pop this year — enough to make choosing my favorites fairly difficult. Unlike my K-pop lists, I’m not going to do an ordered list here. This is because my pool of good albums to choose from was quite a bit larger than my K-pop one was (and the albums tended to be on the longer side, making listening through them all to choose an order tricky from a time-management perspective); I also find that I feel a bit more out of my depth trying to say something meaningful about a lot of this stuff for whatever reason, and as such there are some albums that were definitely among my favorites that I simply won’t be mentioning below for lack of anything insightful to say (such as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. or King Krule’s The OOZ — you have the entire Internet at your disposal to pick those apart). Rather, this is an unranked list of noteworthy albums that prompt responses in me that I feel are worth sharing. Hopefully there’ll be something in here that you haven’t heard before — I’d urge you to seek every one of these albums out at one point or another, but in case the stuff on here doesn’t satisfy you, there are more than enough other year end lists that will all be posting the same stuff over and over :) As a concession, though, I will post my 3 favorite albums from 2017, in order, at the end of this post. So, you know, for listheads, I guess you have that at least?

Oh, and no, I’m not doing a list of my favorite non-K-pop songs — I don’t think I have the mental fortitude to try and do that. Just go and crank up Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut To The Feeling”. There weren’t many songs that I liked better than that one this year.

Anyway…here we go!

[Note: I tried to provide a YouTube link to one song per album, just to provide a quick-and-easy reference for what some of this stuff sounds like, however Japan’s recording industry is notoriously backwards and tends to be strict on having their music put online, so for a couple of the Japanese albums below I wasn’t able to find anything…sorry!]

Wednesday Campanella – Superman

Genre(s): J-pop, Japanese hip hop, electropop, pop
nkp - wednesday campanella

Singer Koumai was recruited for Wednesday Campanella because of the contrast between her voice and the rap music that producer Kenmichi was making at the time they met — an odd recruiting tactic to be sure, but four years and six albums later, and they are the core of one of the most unique and refreshing J-pop groups on the scene right now. Mixing house elements with electropop with hip hop, they have a surprisingly solid discography, but Superman is probably their best release yet. Although it’s fashionable in some pretty obvious ways, it rarely feels like it’s trying to cash in on the current musical trends — mainly because Koumai’s voice is so far removed from what you’d normally find in similar groups in the J-pop or K-pop scenes. She has a very unrefined style — frequently off-key or off-rhythm, she counterbalances the immaculate production in a singular way that I’ve yet to hear from any other pop group.

As for the specifics of the album itself — it’s loaded with catchy bangers and hook-heavy sleeper hits. “坂本龍馬” features no rapping, but a sparkling electronic backing track buttresses Koumai’s idiosyncratic voice and builds the song into something much larger that itself — it turns into an immensely beautiful, dreamy song that is distinct from WC’s more typically rhythmic approach, but ends up being one of the album’s most memorable pieces. “世阿弥” builds for the first a minute into a monolithic wall of stuttering synth distortion; the last lines of the chorus, sung in two English words — “Yes, no! Yes, no!” — end up being one of the catchiest moments in Japanese music all year. The album’s highlight though, and the song I ended up returning to more than any other off of this album, is “チンギス・ハン”; Koumai raps the opening verses like they’re nothing before giving Kenmichi some breathing space with a short piano break, just before launching into a double-time rap over a trap beat that builds to this euphoric release of sunshiney pads. It’s about as close to a perfect pop song as I heard all year, smack dab in the middle of one of the best-constructed pop records from 2017.

LISTEN: “チンギス・ハン”

Alex Cameron – Forced Witness

Genre(s): Synthpop, sophisti-pop, new wave
nkp - alex cameron

The ’80s worship prevalent in pop music over the last several years has finally seemed to die down some as people are recognizing it less and less as an homage and more as the “current” sound, but someone either forgot to get Alex Cameron the memo or (more likely) his use of this style of pop music is an artistic choice. I’m banking on the latter.

Forced Witness is the antithesis of everything this style of music tends to portray — instead of suave, sweet-talking protagonists a la Walk The Moon or Destroyer, we get utter scumbags as our (anti-)heroes; scuzzy, disgusting men with heads full of little more than themselves and sex, who see women as objects and pretty much nothing else. It’s a fascinating perspective that is pretty much never explored in any serious way in pop music, and while a sly wink-and-nod sense of humor definitely pervades this album, it’s bold to make something built around such obviously despicable characters. The good thing is that Cameron never exactly condones anything he sings about, even as he takes on these characters’ personalities for their three-or-so-minute existences within these songs. There’s some biting commentary in here as well, especially on songs like “True Lies”, in which Cameron is a man in a relationship who is cheating with another lady over the Internet. His conscience surfaces here and there throughout the song, but he continues to give in, even knowing it could all be fake (the album’s most hilarious moment happens on this track: “Yeah there’s this woman on the Internet / Even if she’s some Nigerian guy / Yeah well you should read the poetry he speaks to me / I don’t care if they’re just beautiful lies”).

Through the lens of its antagonists and degenerates, Cameron highlights some of society’s biggest issues that we tend to be afraid to face head-on — homelessness, porn addiction, manipulative and abusive relationships — and seems to suggest that, even through the ugly outer shells, maybe these people are victims of something bigger than themselves. Even if they’re not, he contends, they’re flawed humans, like the rest of us. It can be hard to remember that sometimes, and while there’s no redemption for any of his characters in this album, Forced Witness never claims to be the end of the story.

LISTEN: “Runnin’ Outta Luck”

koducer – Ascending Sceneries

Genre(s): Jazz, jazz pop, piano
nkp - koducer
In 2014, koducer collaborated with Japanese rapper DAOKO to create a dreamy, breezy EP of breathy Japanese hip hop; while not my favorite album in this style, it was nice enough and so when I found out koducer was releasing an album in 2017, I was expecting something quite different from what I got. Instead of downbeat dream pop, he has instead decided to create an achingly pretty collection of instrumental piano tunes, often jazzy in nature, but just as often more pop-oriented. This is the kind of stuff that would probably be fantastic if set behind some vocals (koducer is a producer, after all, and it shows in the best way here), but it works surprisingly well on its own. This is an unabashedly uplifting album, full of open air and crisp light — “High Sky” stands out as a highlight, a skittering drumbeat punctuating a joyous, lilting piano line. There’s no real pathos to be found here, and it’s wonderful to just bask in the sunlight for once.

This is almost universally the type of music that just kind of bores me to death, so it should say a lot that I adore this album with every ounce of my being. It’s so easy to get swept away in its expansive skies and gorgeous vistas — it’s the aural equivalent of breathing cool air on a clear, cloudless morning with the sun almost blinding you as you look out across the landscape, full of possibility.

LISTEN: “Ascending Scenery”

Bleachers – Gone Now

Genre(s): Pop rock, new wave, synthpop
nkp - bleachers

This album could just be “Don’t Take The Money” 12 times and it’d probably still be on this list. That song is such an exhilarating conglomeration of everything that makes pop songs good — layered vocals, a chant-along pre-chorus, soaring emotion that lifts the whole song to an omniscient vantage point. While nothing else on Gone Now reaches quite those heights, it’s still a remarkably consistent album; according to Jack Antonoff, the album’s lyrics and themes were heavily influenced by the death of his sister, and how that event now acts as a kind of filter through which he views the world. Although not a concept album in the classic sense of the phrase, the album contains lyrical and musical motifs that run through the entire thing — the lyrics “Goodbye to the friends I have / Goodbye to my upstairs neighbor…” (or “Good morning”, depending on which song you’re listening to) repeat throughout the album, reflecting the tension between wanting to move on in a healthy sense vs. wanting to run away from everything. It’s a very bittersweet 40 minutes, to say the least.

Stylistically, Jack Antonoff has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and there’s plenty of that here too — the album borrows heavily from ’80s stadium rock like U2 and Bruce Springsteen (and he sounds distinctly like Bruce when he sings the lines “When all your heroes get tired / I’ll be something better yet” on the appropriately-titled “All My Heroes”). The artificial vocal echo on many of these songs may simply confirm his stadium aspirations, but it also makes him sound all the more isolated — a single voice in a huge, empty space doing all he can to make himself feel less lonely. It’s an effective mix of hero worship and catharsis — Antonoff reaching back to happier times, recalling his role models as a way to cope with loss and an unmistakable tinge of alienation, with the result being a modern pop album on a grand scale that feels many times more genuine than most.

LISTEN: “Everybody Lost Somebody”

Brand New – Science Fiction

Genre(s): Emo, indie rock, post-hardcore
nkp - brand new

It sucks that I have to basically immediately start my thoughts on this album on the defensive — Science Fiction is being blacklisted by many review publications this year due to Jesse Lacey’s alleged sexual misconduct 15 years ago. In a year rife with such allegations, none hit me harder than this one, as I found myself in the position that many people my age who grew up listening to emo music probably did: torn between hating the sin and loving the sinner (and the sinner’s music, in this case). I won’t go off on a whole rant about the toxic mentality that I feel surrounds these kinds of accusations, and the completely unrealistic black-and-white approach that society tends to adopt when confronted with them — made all the worse in this situation given that following the accusation Lacey issued a statement detailing a history of sex addiction, cheating on his wife, and voluntary rehabilitation, none of which is any of our business to begin with. But there’s no room for nuance in the public square, I guess.

Ok, sorry — I won’t go further here but suffice to say, I don’t want to dismiss Lacey or Brand New’s music out of hand because of this, especially because he’s done more to better himself since then, years before any of this came to light, than most people accused of similar things would ever willingly do after the fact. It’s not my place to forgive him (I wasn’t the one wronged, after all), but my love of Brand New’s music hasn’t really been affected, and after waiting eight years for this fricking album to be released, I just want to be able to enjoy it.

And I do. It’s similar in tone to their last two releases, although more reserved than most of the stuff off Daisy. It’s as characteristically dark and brooding as songs like “You Won’t Know” or “Noro” were, with heavy themes centering on spirituality, depression, and a longing to just be done. There are moments of light, though — in “Can’t Get It Out”, Lacey reveals his frustration with exclusively being associated with sadness: “Not just a manic depressive / Toting around my own cloud / I’ve got a positive message / Sometimes I can’t get it out”. These are more than counterbalanced, though, by Brand New’s usual dark shtick, which comprises the bulk of the album. In “Same Logic/Teeth”, Lacey explores the cyclic patterns that drive people deeper into their own heads; “137” mixes religious imagery with the horrors of nuclear war, suggesting that since we discovered how to do so, maybe we’re best just vaporizing ourselves; “Waste” basically documents Lacey’s desire to move on past Brand New, although it’s not clear that where he wants to go is any better. It’s an emo-infused, indie rock goodbye letter in which Lacey and crew get all their final philosophizing out in the open, leaving us with often obscure references to pick apart in the meantime: “Swallow the pitch that flows from the Earth” and “Deader than a Donner daughter” are both lines in “451”, for example. Chew on those for a while.

Brand New have been one of the most important bands in my collection, pretty much since I discovered them. I can’t count the ways that their music has influenced, helped, and spoken to me at various points in my life. I’m not a special case, either — if you do even minimal searching online, you’ll see thousands of people saying pretty much the exact same thing. Science Fiction is a fitting end to the group (as it’s been all but outright stated by the band that they won’t be releasing anything more after this one), but even take away the context and the album stands as one of the finest, most thought-provoking and understated rock records of the year.

LISTEN: “Lit Me Up”

Izumi Makura – 雪と砂

Genre(s): Japanese hip hop, trip hop, downtempo
nkp - izumi makura

Izumi Makura’s work is at the extreme end of what I would consider to be acquired taste. Her albums have a super hazy, unfocused feel that permeates every element — her beats are loose, the electronics minimal, and her vocals slip in and out of rhythm and tone with no warning. Her music has a very “bedroom production” feel, as if it was made on her laptop in the middle of the night while she sat in bed with the lights off and her headphones on. There’s something very intimate about her work that is absent in almost every other form of hip hop that I’ve heard. It’s more emotive, quieter, more comforting, not at all confrontational or harsh.

雪と砂 (Yuki To Suna) feels slightly slicker than her previous albums, but it loses none of its warmth in the process. It retains all of the downbeat atmosphere that defines her best work, although bang in the middle of the album is also one of her most surprising (and best) tracks. “Call It Love” features not only a guest rapper (a first for Izumi), but a towering chorus hook that turns the song into what could almost be called a single, a concept that’s pretty foreign to Izumi’s whole aesthetic. The rest of the album stays in less bombastic territory, but if Izumi is good at anything, it’s demonstrating that whispers just prompt everyone else to shut up and listen closer.

Ross From Friends – Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

Genre(s): Lo-fi house, outsider house, house, microhouse
nkp - ross from friends

There are a lot of opinions out there about lo-fi house; it’s an extremely divisive genre within electronic music, some people praising it for its vintage-worship sound, others claiming that it’s a gimmick that’s run its course. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the talk, or are simply not familiar with the trends in electronic music, lo-fi house is basically house-via-vaporwave — vinyl pops, tape hiss and all. As the name would imply it often sounds like it’s coming from an old radio; the irony that YouTube and digital streaming contributed directly to the rise of lo-fi house artists is certainly not lost on them. Personally, I’m fond of this type of music in small doses. DJ Seinfeld released his first full-length album earlier this year, Time Spent Away From U, and listening through the entire thing made me realize that there is actually a limit to how enjoyable this stuff can be. It’s not a very diverse sound, so short EPs like Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes are typically the best vehicles for delivering it.

The opening track “In An Emergency” is immediately engaging, not bothering to do any slow lead-ins or sound layering, instead starting with a 140 bpm kick, double-time hi-hats and a slightly distorted “Oooh” vocal sample that meanders its way through to the end. The rhythmic switch-ups that RFF constantly throws out through the track’s 5:20 run give this song an off-kilter feel, while the synths envelop the whole thing in a warm, comforting melody. Lo-fi house tends to have a very inviting, intimate aura, and this track represents that in as clear a way as the hazy beats allow. “Crystal Catcher (weed)” is a more chaotic track, with cut-up vocal samples scattered over the subterranean bass drum. There’s a lot going on in this one, and it always feels on the verge of spinning apart — it’s full of tension coming from all directions, a feeling that’s somewhat unique to the genre.

There are no weak tracks here. “XOXOXO” and “Donny Blew It”, the other two, are equally good and solidify this EP as one worth hearing, especially if you have yet to make up your mind about lo-fi house. It’s true that, much like vaporwave, the genre has the potential to become a meme and collapse under the weight of its own ironic approach to music. Nostalgia can only work as a selling point for so long before it’s no longer nostalgic — and when that element disappears, what were once assets become flaws. Lo-fi house probably won’t have much currency in a few years, so soak it in now before it becomes a footnote in the oh-so-storied history of electronic music.

LISTEN: “In An Emergency”


Genre(s): J-pop, J-rock, indie pop, pop rock
nkp - shishamo

A lot of the time, all I ask of Japanese music is to appeal to my weeb fantasies about living in Japan and walking through the suburban streets on a warm summer evening, like in all the slice-of-life anime I love to watch. I’ve found that this is actually harder for most J-pop/J-rock to accomplish than you might imagine, which leads me to believe that maybe there’s something else at play in regards to what I look for with this stuff. All I know is that SHISHAMO are one of the few J-whatever bands who have consistently embodied more or less the exact sound I need when I get the craving to escape into my anime worlds without actually, you know, watching anime.

This is a beautifully lush album — guitar pop often backed by live horns set beneath lead singer Miyazaki Asako’s strong vocals. (Seriously, an aside here — she has one of the absolute best voices I’ve heard yet in Japanese music, resting in the range of most female Japanese singers but not nasally or cutesy or gimmicky, and often displaying this really pleasing natural vibrato. She sounds very much like herself, to use a really tacky turn of phrase.) The arrangements are full to bursting, and the result is song after song of catchy, exultant pop tinged at the corners with hints of melancholy. The way Miyazaki stretches out her voice in songs like “Koi” and “Natsuno Koibito” are swoon-worthy counterweights to the more upbeat rock numbers like “Suki Suki!” and “Owari”, but it almost wouldn’t matter — SHISHAMO can really do no wrong no matter the tempo. It all sounds good.

SHISHAMO 4 fits neatly into the band’s discography, and while it doesn’t sound functionally different from pretty much anything else they’ve released thus far, I feel like there might be something to be said for consistency. There’s plenty of risky, weird, and unique Japanese music out there, but SHISHAMO don’t have any need for it. What they craft is some of the coziest and most evocative J-pop on the market, and there’s nothing more I’ll ever ask or want of them.

3. Iglooghost – Neō Wax Bloom

Genre(s): Wonky, UK bass, glitch hop
nkp - iglooghost

You find yourself in a pink-tinted world where the usual laws of reality don’t seem to apply. Exaggerated figures and shapes rush past at such a speed that you can only make out vague imprints before the next thing grabs your attention. Voices invade your consciousness but they don’t say anything that makes sense. You want to scrutinize this place, but it’s always shifting its size and shape, constantly moving and trying to throw off your balance. There are cartoonish characters who flit in and out of the scenery, but none of them seem to notice or care that you’re there. Finding out this is all a bad trip would come as a relief, but no, this is a weird reality that you are now a part of. This is Neō Wax Bloom.

This album sounds like nothing I can say I’ve ever listened to before. It’s the product of a hyperactive imagination cranked up to 11 on 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew. It’s full of weird sounds and pitched-up vocal samples, sped up to 300+% while bass and synths bounce around without any heed for musical structure. According to the Wikipedia entry (an entertaining read in itself), Iglooghost didn’t use any loops when creating this album — and it shows. The album manages to sound cohesive, yet it’s the difference between something feeling manufactured and crafted. This is a lovingly composed work, custom-made and meticulously arranged. Trying to follow its thread can be exhausting as it doubles back around on itself over and over, but half of the fun of experiencing Neō Wax Bloom is untangling those threads.

It’s endlessly replayable and impassively defiant to simple genre classification — pop music put through a meat grinder and then glued back together in an intentionally different pattern than it was before. It’s informed by all sorts of different types of music — wonky, bass, IDM, hip hop, art pop, J-pop — but doesn’t fall neatly into any single category. Even the recognizable elements are immediately fleeting and impressionist. It’s strange and enthralling, exhausting and vaguely unsettling. It’s also some of the most forward-thinking electronic music I’ve heard in recent memory, and something that by its very nature renders it unlikely to be imitated in any meaningful way anytime soon. No other electronic music from this year was as enthralling to me as Neō Wax Bloom.

LISTEN: “Sōlar Blade”

2. Seiko Oomori – Kitixxxgaia

Genre(s): Art pop, J-pop, J-rock, electropop, pop
nkp - seiko oomori

I fell in love with Seiko Oomori’s work last year as I was going through my J-pop phase; to me it represented everything that made Japanese pop music so interesting and different from Western pop. Sennou still stands as one of the monuments in pop music that may never be toppled — a full-bodied, warped and twisted middle finger to the establishment of tried and true patterns that one can’t escape in mainstream music scenes the world over. It’s sarcastic and confrontational, untamed and subversive, a hard slap in the face to anyone who thinks they have pop music figured out. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Kitixxxgaia continues in the same direction forged by Sennou, but widening out, absorbing more, expanding its sound to dismantle more genres, more classifications and monikers and labels to become something just as abrasive and perhaps even more universal.

Kitixxxgaia sounds like a lot of things — the neon electropop of “IDOL SONG”, the jazzy cabaret of “地球最後のふたり”, the epic melodramatic rock of “POSITIVE STRESS” — and yet it’s hard to trace any one of these songs back to a single overriding influence. It’s all fused together into a chaotic mess that pulses and writhes at Seiko’s command. And while she doesn’t have the most, let’s say, appealing voice in the industry, part of what makes Seiko’s music so remarkable is the way she’s able to twist and mold her voice into whatever shape the music happens to take at any given time. She shrieks, she howls, she purrs, she verges on the edge of emotional breakdown — whatever is required of her, she can do, and although it’s always rough and brittle, it keeps her music from becoming too immediately likable — you have to work at this.

As she’s always done, with Kitixxxgaia Seiko Oomori is challenging the notion of “pop”, pushing the boundaries into territories they were probably never meant to go. Depending on your disposition, this may be the most inaccessible album on this list. Seiko doesn’t care about your tastes (the songs rarely fall into simple categories), she doesn’t care about your time (songs often go over the five-minute mark), she doesn’t care about you. Listening to Kitixxxgaia can be a taxing experience, but it’s also one of the most rewarding things I discovered all year.

LISTEN: “ドグマ・マグマ (Dogma・Magma)”

1. Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness

Genre(s): Indie rock, heartland rock
nkp - gang of youths

Rock music and I have been on the outs the past few years. It’s nothing personal, really, it’s just that I’ve been much more drawn to more electronic-influenced music — house, techno, J-pop, K-pop, synthpop…probably lots of other “-pops” as well — and it’s become, well, boring, I guess. Indie rock sold out its sound to stadiums years ago, and most current so-called “alternative” music is getting more and more electronic every day. Ironically, the further we move from LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled release, the more James Murphy’s line in “Losing My Edge” seems prophetic: “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables”. Maybe I’ve just been trying to get ahead of the curve for once in my life, I don’t know.

What I do know is that Go Farther In Lightness is, bar none, the most thrilling rock record I’ve heard in years. So much of the music that I’ve listened to in the realm of rock recently is either lacking in passion or feigning it; with this release, Gang of Youths dole it out in spades. Their style borrows heavily from classic heartland rock — these guys worship Springsteen and don’t bother to hide it, which is obvious from the opening seconds of “Fear and Trembling”, a “Thunder Road” homage if I’ve ever heard one — while making it a wholly 2010s affair, bringing in chamber elements to round out their sound into something extraordinarily rich, and all the more appealing.

This is a long record (clocking in at 77 minutes, this is by far the longest album represented here), and they use the album’s incredible length to explore love, philosophy, spirituality — all perfectly common subjects for anyone with a guitar in their 20s or 30s to write songs about, sure, but Gang of Youths approach these subjects with a deep reverence that transforms their songs into something more than simple 4-minute musical diary entries. They’re loaded with confessional vignettes; lead singer Dave Le’aupepe takes on the role of multiple characters, often in the midst of spiritual or mental crises, and gives them a voice. In “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?”, he seeks God but fears silence on the other end as punishment for having lost the passion that he once had in his faith. In “Achilles Come Down” he gets inside the mind of a suicidal Achilles, the song ending with a layered back-and-forth good angel/bad angel dialogue. In “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane” he describes a recurring nightmare he has of having a perfect life and feeling unworthy, drinking it away in his basement while his dream wife and child run out to do some errands and die in a car accident.

The band has this uncanny ability to make every one of these mini-stories feel concrete and larger-than-life. They’re all quite accomplished musicians and the songs are full to bursting with blinding light and lush sound. There’s enough pop sensibility here with songs like “Let Me Down Easy”, which carries a steady, upbeat cadence, strings, and and an incredibly catchy sing-along chorus, to keep this album exhilarating even late in its 16-song run, but this is a rock record to its very core. The difference is that all the drugs and sex in the world wouldn’t keep Le’aupepe and his bandmates from philosophizing on what it’s all for, where we’re going, and why. It’s been a long time, but I think I’m ready to love rock music again.

LISTEN: “Atlas Drowned”

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2017 in retrospect: the best k-pop albums

Navigating through the K-pop landscape has been difficult for someone like me, with a background in music more focused on the album as the primary vehicle for a group to collect and release their work. It doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t how K-pop works — albums are centered tightly around one or two singles, with the rest being often passable but ultimately forgettable filler. Although pop music in general has operated this way for just about as long as pop groups have been around, K-pop seems to take this approach to gross extremes. Idol groups will release something — a single, an EP (often termed “mini-album”), whatever — and then go into radio silence for a couple months or more before making their “comeback”, usually preceded by weeks of hype and teaser images or video clips. The comeback itself is usually a single and accompanying high-quality music video release, sometimes with the singer/group debuting a new “concept” (aesthetic direction) that they will be parading around for the foreseeable future.

(If this all seems calculating and faintly manipulative, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The K-pop subculture is full of stuff like this.)

Because of the highly controlled, cyclic path that your standard K-pop artist will take, album releases, while anticipated, are often less of a big deal than the singles which perpetuate the cycle. The albums themselves tend to have several common elements, as well — a K-pop album/mini-album will rarely be longer than about 35 minutes. They also tend to be blatantly front-loaded. The lead single is often the first or second track, and most of the other “strong” songs on a given album are in the album’s first half. The second half is usually reserved for more obviously filler tracks; listening to a K-pop album front-to-back is typically a very uneven experience. Also, especially with idol groups, there will usually be one or two party-ready bangers, with at least one slow ballad thrown in as well.

What this means is that K-pop albums, more often than not, lack the kind of depth that I enjoy finding in more album-oriented, holistic releases found in other genres. They tend to be extremely formulaic in their arrangement and general disbursement of content. There are rarely the themes or motifs in K-pop that help to define many of my all-time favorite albums, for example. K-pop simply feels (and is meant to be) more disposable and more playlist-oriented, and it shows in its approach to the album format, among other things.

That said, there are always exceptions. Many of this year’s releases were able to overcome the generally album-agnostic approach that typifies the genre, and I actually came across plenty of K-pop releases this year that were able to satisfy my desire for something more than the superficial front put on by many K-pop acts. Although several of the following albums are just pure pop goodness that hit my pleasure buttons, plenty more cracked the code and are wonderful, stand-alone releases that are enjoyable for more meaningful reasons. Although I’m sure no best-of list could satisfy any single diehard K-pop fan (and this one certainly won’t, as I can think of many albums that were being praised in K-pop circles that simply didn’t click with me), these are my 15 favorite K-pop albums from 2017. Enjoy!

[As a quick aside — if you’re not familiar with much K-pop, it is a heavily viral scene. Its massive popularity is due in no small part to YouTube, and South Korean labels and recording companies seem to be very unconcerned with fans uploading songs and albums to YouTube because they’re, well, smart and recognize the revenue such laxness brings them in other ways. Thus, literally all of the below albums can be found on YouTube in their entirety, if your interest is piqued to that degree ;)]

Red Velvet – The Red Summer
EXO – The War
Monsta X – The Code

Look — I love each of these three albums, and it pains me to leave them off this list (especially The War). But when it comes down to it, the issue with each of them is the same — they don’t forge any new ground, and they don’t stand out above the rest of the albums I’m about to list. If you’re new to K-pop, though, I would heartily recommend any one of these albums as a great entry point — they each do what they do well enough, and it’s usually better to work your way up to the best, rather than starting there. None of these albums disappoint, and it only gets better from here.

15. BTOB – Brother Act.

15 - BTOBGetting into K-pop was a process for me, not something that happened immediately. One of the highest barriers to entry for me was the fact that it just tends to sound so produced, so planned, so controlled and sterile. For a long time, I couldn’t see the group in my mind’s eye when I listened to most K-pop, only the team of producers, managers, and suits that constructed the music, sitting behind the studio glass and watching a bunch of faceless guys or girls sing and dance while they smiled to themselves, thinking of all the money they’re going to be making off of said group’s hard work.

To an extent, I still see this, but now it’s out of choice so that I don’t forget that side of it, because it’s definitely a part of the industry that’s easy to lose sight of when you start to really like the music. And I don’t want to discount the fact that there is a lot of artistry at work in the music being produced — we’ll get to some of those albums later, but Brother Act. certainly isn’t one of them. For all intents and purposes it is a quintessentially K-pop boyband release, producers and businessmen and all, but it excels in ways that just make it more enjoyable than the rest. It’s also more varied in its sound than a lot of other similar releases; while it has its share of the predictable, it also gets sonically experimental (for K-pop) from time to time — the drum’n’bass-infused “Guitar (Stroke of Love)” is a nice break from K-pop’s usual four-to-the-floor rhythms, and “Nanana” has some of the best vocal harmonizing I heard all year. It’s a fun album, to be sure, and proof that within the confines of standard pop are the tools to make stuff that can still stand out.

14. TWICE – Twicetagram

14 - twiceIt’s actually harder than you might think to find a K-pop album that’s truly bad — according to my RateYourMusic account I’ve listened to some 150+ albums and there are very few that I’ve rated lower than a 2/5. And this makes sense to me — I usually remember the truly awful stuff I listen to, but no K-pop comes to mind when I think about it. It’s often trite, and formulaic, and girl groups tend to get the worst of it — they all tend to sound very similar, fronted by interchangeable, anonymous girls who conform to the “cute/sexy girl” stereotype. As a whole, these groups usually have little personality, or anything that defines them.

It pains me to say that TWICE actually don’t really stand out from the rest in any real, meaningful way, besides the fact that they just do what everyone else does a bit better. “Likey” is the obvious takeaway from this album, but there are plenty of other pop gems sprinkled throughout — the bass line on the chorus of “Rollin'” is one of the album’s highlights, and every upbeat track here is pretty much a straight-up good time (the chants on “FFW” are hard proof that the producers responsible for this album know exactly what it takes to make some of the best earworms in all of pop). TWICE may suffer from being “another girl group” in a genre that is oversaturated with the same concepts, the same voices, the same tempos and production tricks that cause so many outsiders to write it off, but every generation has to have their queens — and TWICE can fit that role better than any other girl group on the scene right now.

13. EXID – Eclipse

13 - exidEXID are a group that has yet to release something I don’t like. They’re not as big as a lot of other girl groups, their style tends to be more subtle, and while no less pop-oriented than any other given K-pop group, the fact that “Boy” is the opening track for this EP says something about their desire to be enjoyed for more than just the usual reasons. Eclipse is a patchwork of unorthodox sounds — the heavily modulated vocals in “Boy” and “Velvet”, the horns in “Night Rather Than Day”, singer LE’s throaty, raspy voice…it’s easy to think sometimes that this shouldn’t be as cohesive as it is, and yet the result is this engrossing, nocturnal pop music that deserves way more than the 20 minutes this EP lends it.

Oh, and “How Why” has one of the best synth hooks I heard all year when that chorus crashes down. Crank that song up and lose yourself in the album’s one moment of dance-y, hands-in-the-air, sing-along break-up catharsis.

12. Mamamoo – Purple

12 - mamamooOne reason I think I tend to prefer boy groups to girl groups in K-pop is that vocally they’re just more interesting, and varied; if you pick a girl group at random, the chances are very high that the singers are going to have very interchangeable voices, not just between themselves but between other girl groups. They all tend to meld together into a bubblegummy mess that, while it doesn’t prevent them from making some really great pop music, usually prevents the group as a whole from being recognizable outside of a few key songs.

Mamamoo expressly does not have this problem; their two standout singers, Solar and Whee-In, are deep and massive pools of rich vocal expression. They both remind me, in some ways, of Adele — not so much in how they sound, but in the way that they subvert the expected pop conventions and bring so much more power to their songs, that with other voices would be instead accomplished behind a mixing board. Purple continues the trends found in earlier Mamamoo releases, with their more jazzy, live-instrument approach. It’s playful and forceful music all at once, centered around the heavily dance-pop “Finally” and sarcastic “Age Gag”. As with every Mamamoo release, though, the outstanding vocals are what make the music worth listening to — pipes this good come along very rarely for female-fronted K-pop groups, so take notice.

11. pH-1 – The Island Kid

11 - ph-1Much as I love the genre, K-pop can be tiring to listen to on the best of days — its saving grace is that I don’t know the language, so at the very least I’m not subjected to probably-repetitive lyrics about love and longing and how beautiful that one girl is. I stumbled across pH-1 entirely by accident, so going into listening to The Island Kid I knew literally nothing about him. Ironically, the thing that drew me into his music was an English lyric on the opening song, “Christ”: “I hope that God can really use me / Of all the talents of his choosing / He signed me up for this music / And I hope that I can really use it / For the kingdom / For the glory”. This is so antithetical to typical K-pop subject matter that when I first heard this I was so taken aback that I wasn’t really sure I had heard it right at all.

I don’t mind shallow lyrics, necessarily — the fact that I consider TWICE’s “Likey” my favorite K-pop song from 2017 should be proof enough of that. But hearing a proclamation of faith in a K-pop song is not something I can say I’ve ever heard before, and I don’t know if it even exists anywhere else. As a Christian I always love hearing this kind of stuff in unexpected places, and although most of this album isn’t all as lyrically surprising as “Christ”, pH-1 makes up for it in other ways, with nice guest spots and slick rapping. Mostly R&B-oriented, The Island Kid goes down as smooth as more accomplished K-pop artists that take the same approach, and at just over 20 minutes it’s a wonderful, bite-sized bit of fresh air that’s perfect for those times when I’m feeling the staleness start to set in.

10. Zico – Television

10 - zicoLike I mentioned yesterday, Zico isn’t the most immediately charismatic rap artist on the scene. He doesn’t have a great voice, nor the sense of flow or rhythm that more capable artists do. But there’s just such an authenticity to his work and it bleeds through every song on here. The appropriately-titled “Behind The Scenes” details Zico’s creative process; the unusually catchy “Artist” features a double-take turn of phrase in “Life is short, art is long”; “ANTI” has already been discussed; and “She’s A Baby”, despite reinforcing the fact that Zico is not a singer, delves into downtempo, experimental territory, and ends up being one of the most interesting tracks on the album (if not necessarily one of my favorites).

In Television, you can hear Zico’s relative inexperience. Despite being a member of Block B since 2011 and having released a solo album in 2015, he sounds out of his depth more often than not, and it speaks volumes that since his debut album he’s surrounded himself with guest spots on almost every track — but it’s obvious to me that he’s pushing himself and trying things that are genuinely fascinating. The comparison to G-Dragon I made yesterday is more than a superficial one — he has the same imaginative force that drove GD to the top, and because he’s on a smaller label he’s not bound by the limitations many other solo artists face, so he’s able to try out his ideas. There’s a deep artistry and sense of excitement in his work, and I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes from here. For now, Television is a weird and completely unrefined release, but it’s bursting with creativity and that’s sadly something that can be difficult to find in K-pop.

9. ODD EYE CIRCLE – Max & Match

9 - odd eye circleLOONA’s prolonged, 18-month reveal until their 2018 debut has been an ambitious experiment, to say the least. Every 1-2 months over the last year or so, Blockberry Creative has debuted one member of the 12-member group, along with a music video and short EP for each girl. There have also been two sub-units that have released music (one being the oh-so-creatively-named LOONA 1/3, the other is ODD EYE CIRCLE), and if what’s been released so far is anything to go by, we’ve got a lot to look forward to with LOONA’s actual, official debut.

Max & Match is a collection of spacey, mid-tempo synthpop that doesn’t do anything too far outside the prescribed norms, and yet still manages to feel special. The girls of OEC all have phenomenal voices (listen to Jinsoul on “Chaotic”, holy crap), and the production is stellar — it’s a very warm listen, full of hooks (those “Ooooh”s on “Girl Front”) and dreamy vocal layering (“LOONATIC”). There’s not a weak song on the whole thing and as far as pure pop goes, no girl group did it better this year.

8. Bobby – Love and Fall

8 - bobbyWhen you listen to K-pop, you have to put up with a certain amount of preening — you eventually get used to it, but this was another hurdle I encountered when I first started exploring the genre. Image is everything in K-pop, and while I usually love K-pop videos (the worst K-pop MV is still probably better than most of the “best” Western music videos), the singers tend to be fairly expressionless, which I’m told is a cultural thing. It’s to Bobby’s credit, then, that even though he embodies that trendy thug look pretty completely (although let’s be honest, he kinda pulls it off), in the music video for “Runaway” we get to see him actually expressing emotion in a way that makes sense with the song. I mean, in a lot of contexts this is like praising a 12 year old for coloring inside the lines, but if you’re unfamiliar with K-pop you don’t know how common the “blank sexy look” is in its MVs, and how utterly annoying it can be to see it yet again.

But that’s tangential to the topic at hand. Love and Fall itself is somewhat standard fare for this kind of approach — R&B/hip hop fusion about expressing love in the suavest way possible — but man does Bobby have a good voice, and his versatility puts pretty much every other male K-pop star to shame. He doesn’t have the smoothest vocals in K-pop (that award probably goes to Jonghyun), but really that’s what makes this album so magnetic. “Tendae”, for instance, has Bobby putting one of his catchiest and smoothest choruses next to raspy rapping and “Up” has him doing vocal gymnastics alongside Mino in the album’s heaviest cut. The sum total of Love and Fall is a bulletproof collection of pop gems, and his immediately recognizable voice places him floors above his peers.

7. Taeyeon – My Voice

7 - taeyeonTaeyeon has a long history in K-pop; as one of the members of Girls’ Generation, she was at the forefront of the Korean Wave that broke upon Western shores in a big way around the turn of the decade, and so played (however minor) a part in my own discovery of the stuff. She has a fairly deep library of solo releases — singles, EPs, collaborations and the like — but from that which I’ve listened to, pretty much the only thing that ever caught my ear was “Why”, a pretty standard housey pop song with this beautiful moment where the music cuts out and all that’s left is Taeyeon’s silky voice trilling the word “…youuu” in this moment of smile-inducing aural perfection. My Voice is Taeyeon’s first actual full-length album released in her many years of solo work, and I put off listening to it for a long time this year because of my lukewarm experience with her other stuff.

Well, we all make mistakes, I guess.

It’s an appropriately-titled album, putting Taeyeon’s powerful vocals at the center and building lovely pop vignettes around it. It’s a stylistic patchwork; upbeat dance-pop (“Cover Up”) sits across from trappy art-pop (“I Got Love”), while a horn-infused kiss-off (“I’m OK”) parades in the background. There are acoustic guitars (“Fire”) and pianos (“Love In Color”). Every song brings something different to the table, but it’s Taeyeon’s voice that ties everything together into a rich tapestry. Not everyone would be able to make these songs work in the context of a greater whole, but I suppose if anyone could, it’s Taeyeon.

6. KARD – You & Me

6 - kardKARD are a bit of an outlier. Their success has come mainly internationally — they are wildly popular in places like South America but decidedly overshadowed back home. Their debut single “Oh NaNa” was perhaps one of the best debuts by a K-pop group ever (in this fan’s humble opinion), but their follow-ups “Don’t Recall” and “Rumour” both felt like blatant retreads, trying to recapture the magic of that first single. I’ve seen them panned by many a K-pop fan for refusing to climb out of the tropical house hole they dug themselves into with these songs, and their first mini-album Hola Hola certainly didn’t bring anything new to the table. Even though I enjoyed that release, I can’t in good conscience claim that it was anything other than “safe”. So when I saw that they had released a second mini-album this year, I approached it with considerable trepidation.

You & Me ditches the tropical house sound they built their fame on almost entirely for something much darker, much more emotional, and substantially more cohesive. While KARD’s status as an idol group with both male and female members probably accounts for their relative unpopularity in South Korea (labels just don’t know how to market such groups well), it also allows them a great deal of freedom to explore concepts and themes in their work that other groups simply can’t, and this ends up being You & Me‘s greatest asset. There’s a tension that permeates this album that’s absent in other K-pop releases, thanks in large part to the male/female dichotomy.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the two very different renditions of “Trust Me”, one featuring only J.Seph and Jiwoo, the other with BM and Somin. The songs feature similar lyrics but completely different musical approaches. Both are emotionally charged to the bursting point, the lovers in each trying to overcome a lack of trust between them in their own individual ways. These are pivotal moments on an album full of peaks — the lead single “You In Me”, for example, falls back slightly on the tropical elements but turns off the lights completely, and accompanies a haunting music video that gives an unexpected spin to the lyrics “I’m calling out to you / But you don’t answer”.

You & Me is one of my favorite albums of the year. It’s a sharp and needed turn off of the path they were headed down, and breathes new life into a group that were fast on their way to becoming one-hit-wonders. More than that, though, it’s a dive into little-explored territory in K-pop, investigating the dark corners of relationships that most K-pop singers never get far enough to examine themselves. It feels more serious and foreboding than most of the stuff that comes out of the scene, and it’s an exciting new direction for a group that has a lot of potential to make waves…if they’re ever given the opportunity.

5. IU – Palette

5 - iuPalette was, on my first listen, an incredibly boring and forgettable release. I don’t remember what exactly I was expecting, but I think I was hoping for something poppier, more striking somehow. I shelved it and basically forgot about it until close to the end of the year; in between I did a lot more exploring, listened to a lot more K-pop specifically, and was getting close to reaching a saturation point. I eventually found my way back to Palette through the less-bombastic avenues of more R&B-based artists, and when I finally listened to it again it was with new eyes, new ears, and a completely different mindset.

The thing about this album is that it’s quiet. Although certainly a pop album at heart, the bulk of the songs on here are ballads featuring little more than IU and a piano or acoustic guitar. Even the more fleshed out tracks — “Palette” and “Jam Jam”, for example — sound like stripped-down versions of something that was once much larger and more imposing. On this release, IU trimmed away every unnecessary piece, leaving only the essentials. It’s an incredibly emotional album at nearly every turn, even moreso if you read translations of the lyrics — the imagery in the closing track, “Dear Name”, provides an elegant example: “I know your name that has silently been forgotten / I won’t stop, I’ll shout out several times / Even if you’re so far that I can’t believe it / Let’s go, to the place at the tip of dawn”. The album is rife with stuff like this, and even if you choose not to read the translations, IU’s vocal delivery is typically enough to convey the ideas.

It’s just such an achingly pretty album, especially when you place it against most of the other stuff on this list. It may even require that very context to get the most out of it, I don’t know. There’s plenty of emotion to be found in K-pop, but the problem is that most of it feels manufactured. Straight-up, it doesn’t feel that way here. It may be — who knows? — but if it is it’s so hidden within IU’s gorgeous voice and the stunning arrangements that I don’t care. I’ll happily get sucked into this world of heart-on-sleeve balladeering again and again until the end of time.

4. BTS – Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’

4 - btsIt drives my wife nuts that I tend to prefer to listen to my music in album format — playlists are typically not my go-to method for filtering my music, so when I started to get into K-pop one of the things that I think she probably really appreciated was my willingness to create and listen through playlists. The entire genre is tailored this way, as I already alluded to in my introduction. So it should suggest something hopefully significant about Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’ that I can’t cherry-pick songs from this one. If I want to listen to anything off of it, I need to listen to the whole thing. It’s just that good.

BTS have become internationally recognized in the space of the last year; anyone with their ear to the ground of American pop music has probably heard or read those three letters in sequence at at least one point in the past few months. They were hyped up beyond belief for their performance at the 2017 AMAs (and boy, did they deliver), collaborated with Steve Aoki, and hit the Billboard Top 200 with the release of this album. It remains to be seen how much they’ll be able to capitalize on the momentum, but for the time being, it’s good to be a BTS fan.

There’s no one thing that makes Love Yourself such an appealing album, because it simply does everything well — the production values are through the roof on this thing, for example, especially on the more subtle elements of songs like “DNA” or “dimple”, with background sounds and vocal samples that add heat to already-fire pop diamonds. This album also has a wonderfully democratic approach — each of the group’s seven members gets equal mic time (look at the even distribution of colors on this color-coded lyric sheet for “GoGo”), and I feel like BTS does a better job in general of channeling their individual personalities through their music than a lot of other like-minded boybands do. Perhaps most immediately, though, this album is just one scorcher after another. It burns its choruses, its hooks, its beats into your brain in a way that almost no other album on this list does. It begs to be re-listened to, danced to, cranked up with the windows down. It’s hopelessly “now” in the best way possible, and something I will be obstinately unashamed of blasting the second someone asks me why I listen to “that Korean music”.

3. offonoff – boy.

3 - offonoffAny discussion of K-pop tends to focus on its star acts — individuals or groups who are groomed from a young age to perform and create music and be the face of South Korea to the rest of the world. This is not to discount these artists’ abilities or output (hopefully the content of this list makes that painfully obvious), but sometimes it can be easy to forget that, just like any music scene, not every artist is in the limelight. The duo who go under the moniker offonoff are on the perimeters of the scene, producing smokey ambient R&B and getting comparatively little attention; their single “gold” only has 950,000 views on YouTube since it was released in July — which seems like a big number until you realize that BTS’ “DNA” reached 100 million views in less than a month, and that record has since been broken by TWICE. Now granted, BTS and TWICE are some of the most popular K-pop groups out there right now, but if popularity is a sliding scale, then offonoff is certainly on the low end.

It’s not terribly hard to see why — their music isn’t danceable or infectious in the same way as most other K-pop. It thrives in haze and blurred vision and understatement. It’s informed by hip hop culture but not bound by it. While “gold” is full of the swagger and braggadocio one comes to expect from this type of music, songs like “homeless door” reveal something deeper and more introspective (“I just want to have even your heart / I want to know everything”); and the slow-motion closer “Overthinking” chronicles a night walk for the singer to clear his head of his thoughts, with the result being only that he crowds it with more, before the song dissolves into a three-minute wall of ambient synths. The whole album espouses this incredibly chill, eyes-half-open demeanor full of atmosphere, and just goes to show that when the lights aren’t shining on them, talented artists can still make beautiful music out of the darkness and dust.

2. Jonghyun – 소품집: 이야기 Op.2

2 - jonghyunHindsight’s a killer, and three weeks can change everything. I first listened through this album just over a month ago, at the end of November, and I was blown away by it — Jonghyun’s liquid smooth voice is probably the most sublime in all of K-pop, at least of what I’ve heard, and the downtempo R&B that makes up most of this album was a welcome respite for me in much the same way that Palette was — calm, relaxing, and deeply emotive. It was a record to get absolutely lost in and overwhelmed by.

Then, on December 18th, I logged into reddit to find, at the top of my feed, the heartbreaking news of Jonghyun’s suicide. Having just discovered this guy’s music, I was overcome by shock and more than a little grief. Although his impact on my life at that point was minimal compared to many other K-pop fans (as he was also a member of SHINee, one of the first Korean boybands to gain international fame almost 10 years ago), his music had left such an impression on me that it felt more personal than most other celebrity deaths ever have to me.

Re-listening to Op.2 now, I see it in a completely new light. It’s no less magnificent, but everything is now tinted with a premonitory glow. The lyrics, something I never bothered to look up my first time around, so blatantly predict Jonghyun’s suicide that it’s almost sickeningly comical. From “Let Me Out”:

Someone please hold me, I’m exhausted from this world
Someone please wipe me, I’m drenched with tears
Someone please notice my struggles first
Please acknowledge the poor me
Please help me

Or from “Lonely”:

Baby I’m so lonely, so lonely
I feel like I’m alone
When I see you so tired, I worry
that I’m baggage to you, that I’m too much

It goes on and on, it’s plastered all over the album. The entire thing now carries a haunting quality; it’s impossible to listen to without separating its contents from the circumstances that led to Jonghyun’s death. It ends up being one of the most beautifully sad albums I think I’ve ever listened to. Selfishly, I’m upset at Jonghyun’s passing as much because he took his own life before he ever got to experience happiness as I am because I’ll never get to hear new music from him, and then only weeks after I discovered him in the first place. Op.2 is a monolithic record for both its sound and for the outpouring of self contained within, and it’s something I never want to forget, nor is it something I can let pass by without deep reflection. K-pop simply doesn’t get much better than this; it just sucks that it cost so much for me to realize it.

1. G-Dragon – Kwon Ji Yong

1 - g-dragonTwo years ago, my then-fiancee and I were planning our wedding. Being that we were doing everything we could to save money, instead of hiring a DJ we decided to take care of the music ourselves, which involved creating our own playlist for the reception. At my best man’s request, I put a few K-pop songs on the playlist, not realizing that doing so would end up getting my wife so hooked on the stuff that I would eventually spiral down the K-pop hole after her. We still haven’t found our way out.

BIGBANG was Rachael’s first obsession. Over the next year and a half I was regaled with random factoids about each of the different members of the group, from things as mundane as their individual heights to intricate analyses of what would become of each of them as they each enlisted into the Korean military in the coming years to fulfill South Korea’s mandatory conscription program. I got to know their music pretty intimately as it played in the car when we drove places together, or when Rachael did chores around the apartment. G-Dragon was Rachael’s bias (favorite member of the group, for you non-K-pop nerds), and she began to explore his solo stuff as well, which I didn’t really like as much — but that didn’t stop the music from playing. This all culminated in the release of Kwon Ji Yong and, subsequently, getting to see G-Dragon live over the summer. Through this release and that concert experience, my appreciation for GD as an artist has skyrocketed. There’s no question in my mind that this is the best K-pop release of the year, and one of the best albums released all year regardless of genre.

The album represents a stylistic shift for GD, grittier and more personal than anything he’s released before. It shows GD breaking from his shell, making the music that best represents him, more than possibly anything that’s come before (save maybe for “Crooked”), exemplified not least by the album’s title, which is GD’s actual name. There are a bunch of lyrical references that those not familiar with GD or K-pop culture would probably miss (i.e. “Rest in piece (minus one)” from the opening track is a reference to PeaceMinusOne, GD’s fashion brand; the “Get your crayon, crayon” lyric in “BULLSHIT” is a reference to an older GD song, etc.), but even ignoring these, there’s a sense of restraint in GD’s earlier work that is just absent here.

It feels more personal than anything he’s ever done — the opening song “Middle Fingers Up” is a tirade against people who want to use his fame for their personal gain, while “Super Star” is a starkly intimate confession from one of the biggest, most well-known K-pop stars in all of South Korea: “I need somebody, I ain’t got nobody…hello??” The album’s apex, though, is the closing song, “Divina Commedia”, in which GD shows just how far removed he is from normal society — “While others grew, I listed stocks”, he sings, “That’s why I’m a little short.” Coming from a society that is steeped in superficiality and vanity, this album is the equivalent of ripping off a plastered-on mask. GD is at the peak of the world, and yet feels as inadequate as the next guy. In any other society this isn’t a particularly profound statement, but in K-pop, it’s almost revelatory.

GD’s self-revelation and honest assessment of himself stands as one of my favorite musical statements of the year, but my enjoyment of this album isn’t limited to that dimension of it. To me, it represents something far more important and personal — a deep connection I have with my wife. Rachael and I are fairly independent people with our own interests, so when those interests happen to intersect, it’s fantastic. I learned a genuine love of K-pop from her, and this has come to be one my favorite bonds that we share. Looking back, I can say without any doubt that it was Kwon Ji Yong that cemented that connection for me. Few things over the past year have been as important to me as that.

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2017 in retrospect: the best k-pop songs

Every year I do these posts, my goal is as much to show you some of my favorite things from the last 12 months as it is to reveal a little bit about myself and what I’ve been up to/into during that time. In past years, when I’ve done music-related posts, I’ve never restricted the items eligible for my lists to the year in question — this has been because I usually spend more time exploring and discovering music that spans multiple years than I do listening to more recent stuff. I also find it somewhat trite to do these “Best of 20XX” lists because the Internet is saturated with them, and they all tend to be very similar and boring. I like what I post to be at least somewhat unique and personal to me, and to that end, in the past my posts have been wider in their scope than your typical end-of-year lists.

This year, though, after a whole lot of thought on the matter, I’ve decided to conform to the rest of the world and create my own “Best of 2017” music lists. This isn’t as much a cop-out as it might seem at first — this year saw me listening to more new music than I have in years, and I actually have enough material here to put together a few different lists’ worth of music to reflect on…which is just what I’m going to do.

It’s important to note right off the bat exactly what I found myself listening to this year, as much like last year when I went through my electronic and Japanese music phases, this year I got really, really deep into K-pop — obsessively so, in fact, and so much so that I’m going to start this series of posts off with a look at my 30 favorite K-pop songs of the last year.

Now, fair warning to any K-pop fans who might find themselves reading this: I am not nearly as knowledgeable on the subject as you probably are. I ask that you bear with me and forgive my ignorance as we go through this post and the next. I would say that 80+% of my knowledge on K-pop comes to me from my wife, who is a much bigger K-pop nerd than I am. Although she’s not quite sasaeng-level (thank God), she obsesses over this stuff and loves to talk to me about it, all the time. (This isn’t a complaint, my dear!) Still, through osmosis and browsing various forums and such, I’ve come to have a decent understanding of the fandom, at least in general terms, and have listened to a whole lot of stuff released from this past year.

The songs I’m about the share cover a lot of ground — although a good portion of it is probably what one generally thinks of when they think of K-pop, I’ve done my best to try to dig a little deeper to find stuff that is less well-known, with a more unique sound. Regardless of how you feel about K-pop — and especially if you’ve never been very exposed to it in the past — hopefully you’ll find something here that piques your interest in a way that you didn’t expect. That said…let’s begin!

30. Triple H – “365 FRESH”

American pop music this year had Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” (which, coincidentally, was probably one of my favorite Western pop songs of the year), and the K-pop world got “365 FRESH”, a funk-tastic throwback that takes all the best parts of fun ’80s dance music and adds the kind of stuff that makes K-pop so endearing — the raps, the chants (“F, R, E, S and H…so fresh!”), the silly English phrases peppered in. It sounded like nothing else from the K-pop scene this year, really — you might call it…fresh. I’ll see myself out.

29. AKMU – “Play Ugly”

Pop music thrives on earworm hooks — the kind that burrow deep into your subconscious and cause you to start humming them at really inopportune times, like in important meetings or church services. AKMU’s brand of pop-folk-rap is wonderfully addictive in itself (their debut album Play is probably one of my favorite K-pop albums, period), but it’s “Play Ugly” that produces one of the catchiest chorus hooks of the year — the exaggerated way this sibling duo sings “Bay-baee, bay-baee” over minimal piano keys is a guaranteed sticky bomb set to explode when you least expect it — but I’ve yet to find that it’s ever been at a bad time.

28. pH-1 – “Christ”

K-pop is a typically vain subculture. Agencies market their artists based heavily on sex appeal and appearance, and the music is generally geared in that direction as well. You do get the occasional artist or group that is allowed to innovate outside of the usual boundaries and cliches, but that’s definitely the exception to the rule. Perhaps it’s because pH-1 is signed to a smaller label, but this song is exactly the opposite of what you’re likely to find in your generic K-pop song picked out of a hat — it’s a Christian profession of faith and something that intentionally points away from pH-1, and to God. This is exceedingly rare, to the point where I’ve never heard anything like it in K-pop before, and when I first did I took immediate notice. It helps that pH-1 has a great voice and is a good rapper, but for me none of that was the takeaway — it was the fact that Christians exist in the K-pop world, and some are willing to sing about it in such an unambiguous way.

27. LOONA (Kim Lip) – “Eclipse”

The debut strategy for LOONA has been rather interesting — dragging it out over a year-and-a-half is a risky endeavor no matter how you look at it, but the results thus far have been phenomenal, and the sound being built around the members is one of dreamy, noise-heavy synth pads, perhaps exemplified best in Kim Lip’s “Eclipse”. It’s washed in memory-less nostalgia, bittersweet and pining and irresistable.

There’s a lot to love about this track — millic’s smooth voice, the guest spot, the flow — but perhaps nothing so much as the halfway point, where the song suddenly screeches to a halt and switches lanes from synthy R&B to loungey jazz-rap. It’s surprising and unconventional, but millic — a little-known artist in the K-pop world — has the latitude to try stuff like this, and luckily, the talent to pull it off.

25. Pristin – “Wee Woo”

Pristin is one of the most girl group K-pop girl groups of all the K-pop girl groups. That is to say, they embody that stereotypical cute-girl aesthetic really well, and you need look no further than “Wee Woo” to see what I’m talking about. It’s pure guilty-pleasure pop — adorable chorus, high-level danceable energy, rap verses and all. Get out on the floor and jump around, this is what K-pop’s all about.

24. HyunA – “Dart”

In my and Rachael’s discussions of K-pop, HyunA has come up many times, and Rachael always says that she’s scary — she has the “crazy girlfriend eyes”, and I think I’m prone to agree. Her songs tend in this direction too, but “Dart” is uncharacteristically tame, a midtempo synthpop song that showcases HyunA’s range between singing and rapping (it’s crazy wide), and is disarmingly seductive. Of course, once you get too close she’ll probably just rip you to shreds, but sometimes that’s the price you pay.

23. offonoff – “homeless door”

This is probably the most pop-averse song on this list — it’s smokey trip-hop R&B in slo-mo, introspective and intimate. A creaking door provides a rhythmic element that keeps time for the entire song. The song floats on singer Colde’s smokescreen voice and producer 0channel’s minimalist beats; it feels both lighter than air and heavy with significance, and ends up right in the middle where we can grasp it, just before it dissolves into nothingness.

This is closer to Western rap music than most of the stuff on here (if not all of it) — bassy beats, braggy lyrics, a laundry list of guest spots, and a towering swagger that actually feels like it has some weight behind it. It’s in-your-face and threatening like all the best hardcore hip hop, and while it definitely feels somewhat tame compared to something like, say, this, it would still ruin your neighbor’s day if you blasted it out of your modded 370Z with the subwoofers jammed up to 10.

21. S.E.S. – “My Rainbow”

S.E.S. are an old pop group — their album Remember, released this year (their first in 15 years), was done to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their debut. The album is steeped in old-school pop sounds and style — unlike more current pop music, it tends to lack the energy and full arrangements that really define the most popular stuff out there right now, but that said, “My Rainbow” is a silky smooth ballad dripping in the kind of doe-eyed sentimentality that most other girl groups would be jealous to say they could achieve with such apparent nonchalance.

20. WOO WON JAE – “Paranoid”

“Paranoid” is a twisted, writhing song — it burrows underground and bursts out at unexpected times, it jumps around and pushes you off-balance. WOO WON JAE’s vocals are squeezed and deformed like a balloon being played with by a five-year old child; he raps off-time and without any regard to the beat, smashing syllable after syllable into a volume that they shouldn’t be able to fit into, and then remaining silent for several bars as if to make up for it. There’s an insanity to this song that I’ve not found anywhere else in K-pop, a seething anxiety that’s trying to burst through the surface; I’m still trying to figure out what’s keeping it down.

One of pop’s many charms is that it often doesn’t take itself too seriously — especially K-pop. The chorus of this song is absolute nonsense:

You’ve got that ooh-la-la
You’ve got that ooh-la-la, la
It can’t always be a happy ending
You’ve got that ooh-la-la
You’ve got that ooh-la-la, la

…but in typical fan write-off fashion, I don’t really care. It’s hopelessly catchy, easy for a white, almost-30-year-old male to sing along with, and absolutely smile-inducing. What more do you need?

18. Stellar – “Why Me”

Some songs are the singers’, some are the instrumentalists’, and some the producers’ — “Why Me” is definitely the latter, full as it is with vocal manipulation, pitch-shifting, and sequencing to create a chorus so digitized that it would seem that Stellar were only there to provide the raw materials needed for the producers to build it. It stands as a brain-infiltrating monument to the kind of talent that dominates in the production side of the K-pop industry.

17. IU – “이 지금”

This song could just be IU singing “Whatever!” like that over and over and I don’t think I’d love it any less. Coming from an album that is basically defined by melancholy, “이 지금” is a peppy piano-pop tune that showcases IU’s satiny voice and injects a bit of blatant happiness into the whole thing; divorced from that context, it’s still a sunshiney stroll down the avenue on a cloudless day, birds chirping, dogs barking, everything just right with the world.

16. Bobby – “Up (feat. Mino)”

Bobby has one of the most recognizable voices in the Korean hip-hop scene, that I’ve heard anyway, and in this song he pushes it to gravelly depths. At little more than a bare rasp, he brags and raps with all the confidence of rappers who have years more experience and clout, but it’s not as empty as you might think — this dude’s talented. “Up” is possibly his best track to date. With minimal backing and a sinister beat, Bobby and Mino drive this one home in a bling-shrouded Lambo with groupies in tow.

Up until I started listening to him for consideration on these lists, I hadn’t been the biggest fan of Zico from a musical standpoint. He’s not the smoothest rapper, or the most personable, his voice doesn’t stand out, and at least in the context of K-pop, his music lacks the hooks and pop-influenced magnetism of other like-minded rappers. That said, I respect the heck out of him. He reminds me in a lot of ways of G-Dragon, and the way his solo stuff was an aquired taste for me as well — very rough around the edges and raw. More than that though, his entire approach to his music tends to be a lot more artistically-driven and thoughtful than that of his peers, with “ANTI” being one of the prime examples.

Written from the perspective of one of his haters (or “anti”s in the K-pop lexicon), Zico explores the thought process that drives people to tear down artists’ work. It’s full of spite and sarcasm, requiring Zico to step outside himself and look at his own career from the outside. It features what is possibly Zico’s best rap vocal delivery — breathless and as fluid as he’s ever been. G.Soul’s guest appearance to deliver a suave R&B-infused chorus serves as a crisp contrast to the verses, and we end up with a finely-balanced look into — and subtle critique of — the K-pop fandom’s contemptuous side, delivered by one of its fast-rising stars.

14. LOONA (Yves) – “New”

When LOONA finally get around to properly debuting, they could very possibly take over the world with the kind of talent that’s been revealed so far. Yves’ “New”, for example, is a Robyn-like track of bassy synthpop and emotionally engaging songwriting, deep and full and euphoric and dancefloor-ready. If the DJ throws this one on, everybody falls in love that night.

13. Jonghyun – “Love Is So Nice”

The K-pop world was robbed of one of its all-time great voices when Jonghyun committed suicide a few weeks ago; he left behind a wonderful array of songs to discover and enjoy, and “Love Is So Nice” was one of his best cuts from this year. It paints a lovely picture of positivity in primary colors, which stands in stark polarity to the reality of Jonghyun’s situation. But, it speaks volumes to his talent as a singer that he was able to create such happy places for the rest of us, even if he found no solace in them himself.

12. BTOB – “Nanana”

Vocals in K-pop are as important as almost any other element (if not moreso in most cases), but sometimes, especially when it comes to larger boybands, it can be hard to put the vocals front-and-center in as direct way as “Nanana” does. This is a relaxed, acoustic-guitar driven love letter to the kind of vocal harmonizing that the Beach Boys were known for (although the comparison stops there). It’s a wonderfully smooth song, made just to show off BTOB’s vocal chops — even the spoken-word interlude near the end fits into the song’s breezy framework. Lay back, close your eyes, and soak this one in.

11. EXID – “Boy”

Experimentalism isn’t a concept that typically gains a lot of traction in K-pop; as a downtempo, avant-pop masterpiece of vocal pitch-shifting and copy/paste montage building, “Boy” is one of the more disarming tracks on this list, far removed as it is from the euphoric dance-pop or emotionally-drenched ballads that typically divide the genre into its two distinct halves. “Boy” floats somewhere in the middle, teetering between boredom and frustration at not having someone around to share the night with. It’s catchy without succumbing to the usual tricks, and is EXID’s most adventurous outing to date.

10. Neon Bunny – “Now”

This song dropped out of nowhere and I couldn’t have been happier — Neon Bunny’s Stay Gold from 2016 was a wholly underrated and underrecognized masterpiece, so anything new from her was going to get instant attention from me. “Now” is a downbeat art-pop piece, soaking in melancholy and expectation, rounded off by Neon Bunny’s phenomenally effortless and effervescent voice. It’s a gorgeous little track, and hopefully a sign that whatever she has coming in 2018 will not disappoint.

9. ODD EYE CIRCLE – “Chaotic”

Like seemingly all Eastern pop music, English gets mixed in quite often, to varying effect — sometimes it’s painfully awkward (as with J-pop singer Sweet Vacation’s “Looking For The Future”), other times it works in really clever ways, as with “Chaotic”, which might be the first instance in any song of rhyming the word “chaotic” with “psychotic” — I don’t know. The English phrases scattered throughout the song serve as waypoints for navigating the woozy synths, and also as some of the song’s best moments — Jinsoul singing “I’m about to lose controoOOooLll” goes down as probably one of the best lines from a female singer all year.

8. BTS – “DNA”

If you’ve managed to avoid BTS in American media this year, you probably haven’t heard this song, as it’s what they performed at their two biggest events, the AMAs and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. But then you were also missing out on one of the best K-pop songs of 2017, a maximalist anthem full of textural production tricks (the pitched-down, distorted “DNA” vocal sample that kicks off the chorus, for example) and high-voltage synth shocks that keep the energy at maximum. And while this isn’t a review of the accompanying video, let’s not ignore it. It’s exactly the kind of flagship K-pop video that shows off the insane production values that define what the Korean pop industry does best — create audio/visual experiences that put the rest of the world to abject shame. BTS are set to absolutely dominate the world over the next several years. If you’re not onboard the BTS train yet, use “DNA” as your ticket.

7. KARD – “Trust Me” (BM & Somin Version) // (J.Seph & Jiwoo Version)

Although similar, both versions of this song are worth mentioning as they demonstrate just how versatile KARD can be, and how willing they are to take risks with their music, now that they’ve got all that tropical house stuff out of their system. The emotion on display in these songs is palpable — not least of all when BM’s voice cracks on his near-flawless English rap — and acts as the engine on which these songs run. The things that make both versions unique also make it impossible to pick between them — the J.Seph/Jiwoo version features a relentless rolling beat, where the BM/Somin version is warmer, more downtempo. They both have distinctly different feels to them, but convey the same message of trying to build trust in a relationship in the way only a male/female duo can — full of pathos, tension, and desperation.

6. BTS – “Mic Drop”

BTS are arguably at their best when the bass is loud and the rappers are allowed to go nuts — their “Cipher” songs from previous releases were always the standouts, and although they can pretty much kill it no matter what style dominates in any given track, they were originally a hip hop band and it shows to this day. “Mic Drop” is the heaviest song off of Love Yourself, the album they released this year, and also the best. The beat is the kind of stuff that shatters windows at the right volume, and the energy that the rap verses bring is pure electricity — it’s impossible to listen to this song and not feel like you’re on a caffeine high afterwards. The hype is real, boys and girls, and it’s glorious.

Growing up in the limelight sucks. I mean, I wouldn’t know, but IU certainly does; in “Palette” she sings about the tension between who she wants to be and who everyone else perceives her as. Despite its airy, gorgeous melody, the song contains the evidence of the pressure she feels, finally broken by G-Dragon — someone who is certainly familiar with IU’s situation, and who is able to provide some poetic comfort:

When I’m not a kid or an adult, when I’m just me
I shine the brightest
So don’t get scared when the darkness comes
Because it’s so beautiful, because flowers bloom
You are a child that will always be loved

It’s a sharp commentary on the K-pop industry, sung from the pulpit by two of South Korea’s most recognized stars, wrapped in IU’s glittering voice and a chorus that will get stuck in your head for days. If you’re going to make a statement, this is how to do it.

4. G-Dragon – “BULLSHIT”

K-pop is at its best when it’s at its most genuine, a viewpoint that should hopefully be made even clearer in tomorrow’s post on my favorite K-pop albums of the year. In the meantime, we have “BULLSHIT”, the sound of GD finally being let off the leash, allowed now to make some seriously angry music, the kind of stuff he’s probably had pent up for years but has never been allowed to release. It’s raw and assertive, a shout of frustration from one of the most well-known names in the industry against the powers that brought him to that height. Everything GD released this last year has been an intimate look into his personality from perspectives he’s been unwilling or unable to share with us until now, and this song is an explosive burst of catharsis and one of the hardest-hitting K-pop songs released in 2017.

3. 2NE1 – “Goodbye”

2NE1’s breakup in 2016, from what I understand, didn’t come as a surprise to most people, given Minzy’s departure to pursue a solo career and rumors that had been circulating about such a breakup for a while. But it was still hard on a lot of people, because 2NE1 was one of the leading girl groups around the time that K-pop really started to take off in the U.S., and got many into the genre at all. “Goodbye” is one final sendoff from the remaining three members to their fans, and to Minzy — and what a way to go out. Although it’s a stripped-down, acoustic ballad (a far cry from their most famous work), it’s quite possibly my favorite thing from them — heavy, weepy emotion suits them well.

The lyrics, written by CL to Minzy, lend a definite poignancy to the song, especially in combination with the video, which shows Dara, Bom, and CL watching home movie-type projections of themselves and Minzy when they were together as a band. It’s hard not to get choked up, even as someone who is a more casual fan. Breakups suck, whether romantic or platonic, or whatever the word would be for the relationship between a band and their fans, but this is the way to burn out — with a guitar in a blaze of sentiment.

One of the hardest things about losing someone to suicide, I imagine, is looking back and seeing all the now-obvious signs that lead up to it, and wondering what you could have done to prevent it. I’m sure that’s what a lot of people close to him were doing after Jonghyun’s suicide, and from a fan’s perspective, going back through his lyrics has become an exercise in finding different ways of saying, “…well, I’m not surprised, I guess.” “Lonely” is a lovely duet between two phenomenal voices, but the shadow of Jonghuyn’s passing hangs heavy over the lyrics — it’s difficult now to see it as the regretful post-breakup song most people probably thought it was on first listen, and instead feels more substantial, more alarming, and more buried beneath emotional weight than ever before. Unfortunately, we can’t change the past, but we can learn from it, and “Lonely” is a hard lesson in the importance of listening to the hurting people around us.

1. TWICE – “Likey”

“Likey” is everything that a lot of people hate about pop music in general — superficial, vain, manufactured, and bubblegum to its rubbery core. It’s true, you’re not going to find a whole lot in this song that will make you sit and reflect, or think, or do anything of any importance in the world. It’s a pop song that capitalizes in cheap ways on our basest reactionary tendencies, but bear with me because I really do think that this is the best K-pop song of 2017. This isn’t a joke.

See, years ago I was first introduced to K-pop through a Pitchfork article that mentioned Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” as one of the scene’s most popular videos at the time, so naturally I clicked on it, and was instantly hooked. Although my enjoyment of K-pop took many more years to move past that particular song and one or two others, I will always recognize it as the first K-pop song I ever heard and enjoyed. “Likey” reminds me so much of “Gee” that it’s comical — the simple, imitable dance, the sing-along chorus, the colorful video that’s just pure fun — it’s all there in spades. This is the new “Gee”.

But it’s more than that. If you read a translation of the lyrics, they’re undeniably shallow — about dressing up and putting on make-up and undergoing other inconveniences in order to get the girl’s crush to like her photo on social media. Here’s the thing though — although not a criticism or even really a comment on our insatiable need to be recognized and “liked” on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, “Likey” at least acknowledges a facet of our culture that has become so prevalent that a K-pop group literally wrote a song about it and, however ironically, gained over 100 million views in less than a month.

“Likey” simply does everything it does with intense precision. This is a calculated song and video, yes, but it has an infectiously optimistic vibe. It’s trendy in the best ways (Dahyun’s dab in the video’s pseudo-rap portion is one of the Best Things of 2017), the video is endlessly gifable, and I can’t imagine listening to the song or watching the video and not smiling at one point or another. It’s speaking the universal language of pop music — laser-accurate choreography, a fiery hook, good-looking group members — and doing so under the influence of the K-pop industry’s immaculate professionalism. Pop doesn’t have to comment on the zeitgeist so much as represent it, and under those standards, I can think of no better K-pop song from 2017.

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2017 in retrospect: introduction


I know, I know, I’m late in getting this going, but I haven’t forgotten — in fact the reason I’m late in starting my yearly look back on the last 12 months is because I’ve been working really hard to make this retrospective the best one I’ve done yet. This is one of the most exciting and anticipated times of the year — I love posting these yearly reviews — and 2017 had a whole lot I want to look back on and really give proper attention, so I hope you’ll forgive the delay in posting. Hopefully the few extra days you had to wait will be worth the quality and quantity of things I have to talk about.

For myself, 2017 got off to one of the absolute roughest starts I could have imagined. Less than two weeks in, I got a text message letting me know that a girl a couple years younger than me from my church — someone I had grown up with and would count as one of my closest friends — had passed away totally unexpectedly while she was out of town at a relative’s funeral. This was the defining event for the first half of the year for myself and many others close to me, and it still hurts, all the more now that the anniversary of her death is approaching. Having never experienced the death of a friend so close to me in age, it took a toll on me. 2017 sucked from the beginning.

Without wanting to sound callous, though, the year did improve as time went on. In April, I released AMV Tracker, a pet coding project I had been working on for months straight. This was a big deal for me not only because of the sense of accomplishment I got from being able to actually make a working program by building up a rudimentary knowledge of Python into something functional, but because AMV Tracker has become a tool that I use on an almost-daily basis. It was proof to me that it wasn’t just an idea to practice my programming skills, but something practical.

Prior to that, in March my wife and I took a trip to California to celebrate our one-year anniversary, in August we got to go to Colorado to hang out with a bunch of editors at NDK (during which time I got to meet some new friends), and in November my little sister got married to her longtime boyfriend. I also released three videos of which I have to say I’m pretty darn proud. All the while, throughout the year, our cat kept peeing in random places on our carpet. So, a mixed bag, but I’d say it was a good year all around.

Now that the IRL stuff is out of the way, let’s get down to business. For those of you who haven’t experienced my year-end posts before, over the following eight days I’ll be sharing some of my favorite things from 2017. In the past this has encompassed anime, manga, music, and AMVs, however this year I watched only a literal handful of anime throughout the year, and read no full manga series. This was due to a number of factors that I won’t get into here (not because they’re overly personal, but because they’re boring) — all that’s important is that there wasn’t enough material there to justify devoting an entire post to either, so I’m going to break from tradition and skip those this time around.

Instead, I’ll be zeroing in on music and AMVs. It’s going to be a fun time, and there’ll be a whole lot of really great stuff to explore, much of which you may have never heard/seen before. I hope you’ll join me every day as I go through and recap the Best of 2017 — and in order to make it easy for you, I’ll have these posts scheduled to post at 6:00 PM Central Time every day until we’re done. I welcome any and all comments, feedback, reactions, whatever! I really hope you enjoy reading through this even a tiny bit as much as I enjoyed putting it together, so…let’s go!


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flying low #14: excel’s middle name

As the year is winding down, I’ve come to the saddening realization that I’ve done all of one Flying Low entry in 2017, and that back in February. I figured that it might be a good idea to get one more off before I gear up for all my year-end postings, and I wanted to make it something a little different. I came across the editor, LenWidleheyt, early on in my AMV career — he’s only ever made two AMVs, but I somehow stumbled across them and they’ve both earned permanent places in my library. Unfortunately his work was never really remembered, which is an absolute shame because both of these videos reveal both creativity and technical competency beyond what a meager two videos’ worth would suggest.

Excel’s Middle Name steeps itself in Weird, and the song choice (OMC’s “How Bizarre”, oh the nostalgia) certainly allows for it — LenWidleheyt goes full-on, no-holds-barred with the lyric sync, and it’s a credit to his choice of Excel Saga as the anime that he’s able to make almost every strange, off-kilter one-liner work visually. It’s not unlike Copycat_Revolver’s F-Bomb from last year — no matter how specific and unlikely the lyrics are, the anime somehow manages to have a scene that fits.

The result is something that is narratively nonsensical, but just about as much fun as you can imagine a video like this could be. LenWidleheyt goes beyond just brilliant lyric sync, though, and makes use of clever internal sync at every turn, giving the video a satisfying visual rhythm that makes the video doubly fun to watch. I would love to be able to watch this video for the first time, again — the twists and turns that the video takes in its ridiculous scene selection make it an oddly riveting watch, and the moments of blatant humor are fantastic. I don’t know how many times I’ve viewed this video over the years, but it never fails to make me giggle, even knowing exactly what’s going to happen and when.

If you haven’t ever seen this video, I envy you. It’s a stupid, fun, oddball video that thrills in unexpected ways — and while the “unexpected” is what makes it so memorable the first time around, it manages to have an enourmous amount of staying power. I struggle to think of the kind of person who wouldn’t enjoy this (although I’m sure they’re out there). Watch this video and enjoy it, save it, and keep it in your rotation over the coming years. It’ll never disappoint you.

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